Brigham Young's 1847 pioneer company spotted its first buffalo herd on May 1, not far west of today's Kearney, Neb. This vast assembly of American bison was enough "to astonish a man," wrote Apostle Wilford Woodruff. "Thousands upon thousands would crowd together. It was one dark spectacle of moving objects. It looked as though the face of the earth was alive & moving like the waves of the sea."
The camp picked 11 hunters to send out so that everyone didn't run off chasing buffalo. The rest watched, hoping for "the success of our raw hunters," wrote Thomas Bullock, "this being their first chase."
The company was low on supplies, so the "entire Camp were very glad & felt thankful" when the hunters killed 10 animals, a "good day's work" for inexperienced hunters.
Lewis Barney, one of the party's best hunters, was left behind to drive an ox team and felt his talents were being wasted. He didn't think much of the designated meat-makers, since one of them had carelessly tossed his loaded musket into a wagon. When he pulled it out, the gun fired, narrowly missing several men before it smashed the foreleg of Barney's prize mare, which had to be put down.
On May 3, everyone in camp was granted hunting privileges. But before Barney could go after a buffalo, a scout sighted an Indian war party. Everybody was called back to the wagons. Spotting "five or six antelope passing by" several days later, Barney grabbed his gun and started after them. The legendary Mormon Samson, Porter Rockwell, stopped him. "You are not one of the hunters," he told Barney, "and no man is allowed to hunt game but those that are chosen to hunt."
Barney came back "a good deal out of humor as I thought I could kill game as well as some of the hunters."
The pioneers left the buffalo range and were soon back to eating milk and mush. Knowing of his talents, Barney's captain went to him and said: "Go kill some meat for I am nearly starved."
"Do you think I can kill game where there is none?" asked a discouraged Barney, looking out at the empty plains. But he said he would check it out.
The regular hunters hadn't killed anything for days, but Barney returned with a fat pronghorn buck, which disappeared "without my getting a smell at it."
His repeated success won the respect of his comrades, who considered him one of the camp's best hunters, if not the best. It also made Rockwell jealous. "Port, what is the matter? You don't kill anything," one man asked. "Here is Barney. He brings something in every day."
Rockwell charged that Barney killed does while he wouldn't "kill anything but nice fat bucks." To prove his point, Rockwell returned to camp the next evening with an antelope "skinned and dressed up in nice order." Rockwell bragged about his fat buck, which Barney considered "rather poor for a buck." "So I took up the skin and examined it," Barney recalled, "and found it was an old suckling doe skin."
No matter, Barney said. The buck must have made "a good mess of milk."
Frontier legends had a great time in the West, but it was forgotten heroes like Lewis Barney who brought home the bacon.
Ronald Barney's prize-winning biography, One Side by Himself: The Life and Times of Lewis Barney, tells the story of an ordinary Utah pioneer and his extraordinary life.